Nicole Acquah

 

We are pleased to announce the arrival of Nicole Acquah to the STORGY family.

 

Everyone at STORGY would like to welcome Nicole to the team and we are confident that you will enjoy reading her work as much as we do.

 

You can read an excerpt from Nicole’s novel ‘THE KINGDOM OF ARAVAT’ and two previously published short stories, ‘Fragments From The Notes of a Child Psychologist‘ and ‘The Artist‘ below.

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Nicole Acquah is studying a BA in Drama and Creative Writing at Royal Holloway University.

She enjoys writing all sorts of things, although predominantly fiction with dark themes. Nicole also writes for the stage; her first full-length play (an adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray) was performed by the Sky High Theatre Company, which she founded in 2013. Nicole’s play The Spider was also shortlisted for the Southend International Playwriting Festival.

She writes because she has something to say, even if she does not always know what it is. Nicole is a firm believer in trusting God, successful half-marathoner, tea connoisseur and crime fiction lover.  (However she is currently tackling an epic fantasy novel for some reason).

She can be found at @Nico_Deemus, or www.theonlywayisegham.wordpress.com

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EXCERPT FROM “THE KINGDOM OF ARAVAT” – NICOLE ACQUAH
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The seventh month of that particular year promised to be the most eventful for the smallish town of Flynchtire. It was the month that Mayoress Summer Beltrothy, and Jayden Diyan, were to be married.

It was all anybody had been talking about for weeks. Animals and their produce were being traded for fine silk, just so that the townsfolk could afford decent clothing for the event. Despite himself, Arthur was excited. He had never been to a traditional wedding before and this one would spare no expense; there was to be ox-riding and trance dancers, fortune telling and of course, lots of expensive wine transported from the second world.

The streets were awash with musicians; including renowned drummers from the north and piccolo-players from the south. The ceremony itself was over in no time and afterwards the townsfolk spilled into the streets and headed towards the Town Hall for the post-celebrations.

Arthur had promised himself to try and blend in but he couldn’t stop his jaws from dropping momentarily upon entering the Hall. He followed his parents to a large table in the middle of the room, laden with more food than he had ever seen in his life.

“Waemons and haemons alike!” Summer Beltrothy said. She stood at the head of the table, her eyes ringed in charcoal and expensive jewellery adorning her neck. She was beautiful. Perhaps the most beautiful waemon he had ever seen. “Welcome!”

At that simple word, a cheer overtook the room. Summer raised one hand for silence and it was granted to her. “We are honoured that you would join us on this our special day.” She closed her eyes and clasped her hands together. Everybody else followed suit.

“Dear Aravat, we thank You for this plentiful feast and for good company. May you continue to bless the people of Flynchtire.”

“In Aravat we trust,” came the reply.

“Now please – help yourself.”

Arthur was expecting another roar of gratitude but the Hall was plunged into silence as people began to rip into the bread and meat. Presently, people began to talk loudly again. Arthur could only liken the experience to swimming underwater, where all the noises were dulled, before bursting through the surface and being hit by the noise of life.

He looked around him, recognising several of the haemons but being somewhat disarmed by others. Of course, they were wearing clothes that they would not usually dream of owning. Clothes that would be bartered away for the price of ten chickens the following dae. Was it all worth it?

Arthur decided not to over think and instead marvelled at how well the room was lit. Tens of lanterns were suspended from the walls, secured within beautifully engraved holders. He wondered what it would be like to live in such a place. A sudden feeling of paranoia washed over him. Even Queen and King Iappa were present. Arthur knew their faces from a tapestry hung upon one of the walls in The Academy. But even without the painting, there was no mistaking the royal family. Both their crowns glittered in the flickering lights and Queen Iappa’s fingers were adorned with jewels. Her jewellery alone must be worth at least three hundred acres of land, Arthur thought. They were flanked by armed guards, each as stern looking as the next. Looking at his parents, it became8 apparent that neither one of them felt as out of place as he did. Teagun and Yicana were talking to other people in the town and, from what he could see, enjoying themselves. Well. He could use that to his advantage.

Checking were still immersed in their conversation, Arthur reached across the table for a large chalice. As he did so, he caught eyes with a boy across the table. He seemed familiar. Arthur was sure he had seen him at the Temple before. The boy was probably his own age, with dark hair, olive skin and a pleasant face. Arthur brought that chalice to his lips and gulped down the drink – rum was his best guess –  before securing the screw clasp and setting it down on the table. Once more he caught eyes with the boy across the table. Why did he feel so weird? And it wasn’t the alcohol either. There was something in the boys’ eyes that made Arthur feel almost…bad for drinking behind his parents’ backs? He shoved the thought to the back of his mind. His parents wouldn’t mind too much anyway – they too would be avid drinkers if they could afford anything more than watered down dandelion and burdock.

Arthur felt the liquid burn its way down to his stomach, warm and cosy. He wanted to drift off to sleep. Before he could change his mind, he grabbed the chalice and flung it into his satchel underneath the table. Who knew when he would get another chance to taste such a drink?

“Waemons and haemons,” Summer stood once more, this time a little giddier on her feet. A few laughed until they noted the sombre look on her face. “I am apologetic to inform you there is a thief amongst our ranks.”

Arthur’s heart stilled. He looked down at the table. If he met Summer’s eyes he would be reduced to a blubbering, pleading wretch. He wondered what they would do to him. He imagined the disappointed look on his parents’ faces, and the torture – and eventual death – that awaited him. Theft was not taken lightly in the first world, particularly not in the presence of a King. Somehow though, Arthur felt less fear and more anger. How could he have been so stupid? He was in The Academy! He was doing his parents proud! And he had thrown that all away for – for what? The chance to be drunk on some too-sweet fermented apples?

The guests sat in grave silence, some looking around as if the action alone would help identify the thief.

“A thief in this very Hall. A thief that would denigrate this hour of festivity and take something we all hold dear to our hearts.” Summer looked around the room but Arthur felt like she was glaring directly at him.

“M’lady, what have they taken from you?” One of the knightswaemon at her side said. She wore two swords strapped to her back, their blades crossing over to form an ‘X.’

“They have taken something that we all hold dear to our hearts.” Then the unexpected happened. A smile broke out on Summer’s lovely features. “I am speaking of course – of wine.”

The entire chamber burst into laughter, although the rippling anxiety underneath was evident. “And time is the thief,” Summer continued. Arthur realised that she was slurring. “It has robbed us of our drink. A drink most fair! Shall we have more?”

Another cheer rose and haemons everywhere lifted their chalices. Everybody knew that the best wine was reserved until last. Arthur began to breathe again.

“Are you okay, son?” His father asked.

Arthur jumped, then nodded.

Summer sent one of her servants from the Hall in the pursuit of more wine, although it seemed to Arthur that the conversation flowed as easily without it.

The doors at the far end flung open, revealing what appeared to be a procession. Musicians – mainly drummers and the players of a thin tube of an instrument which Arthur didn’t recognise – stood at the front.  As the musicians parted, a group of haemons danced their way through. The shapes they made with their bodies were both terrifying and mesmerising, their limbs twisting into what should have been impossible positions. Arthur watched one particular dancer whose movements seemed to be more possessed than the others. He was a large haemon, with thick arms and a defined abdomen.  Some form of oil had been lathered onto his upper body, and he moved with certain intoxication, his skin glistening under the lights.

There were many jeers and those seated around the table reached out to touch the bodies as they passed by. Arthur licked his lips and reached forward too. His arm was knocked out of the way by the person next to him, who was also trying to get a feel. Arthur contented himself with watching the dance instead. The atmosphere was electric – so much so that he could barely breathe. His stomach was doing weird things and a sort of thrill which started at the top of his body made its way all the way down to his spine. The way they danced made his head spin. He wasn’t the only one having the same reaction. All around him, both haemons and waemons seemed thirsty for more.

At least, almost all of them did.

The boy who had been staring at him earlier – whose mere non-confrontational glance had made him feel defensive – did not seem to be enjoying the show at all. In fact, his eyes were trained firmly towards the ground. Not only was he missing the show, Arthur realised, but he was deliberately missing it!

Arthur decided he wasn’t going to spend his time trying to figure out why the boy was so strange. He twisted in his chair again to watch the procession of dancers.

“What do you think, son?” Teagun asked, chuckling at the look of awe on his son’s face.

There was a disturbance to their right and Arthur turned to see a group of knightswaemon whispering furiously. Summer Beltrothy was in their midst, looking furious. The surrounding knights seemed to be trying to placate her.

As the music trailed off and the dancers’ movements became more languid, it was clear Summer had come to a decision and she was not happy about it. Standing at the head of the table once more, she demanded silence with the raise of one hand.

“I am filled with sorrow to announce that we will be unable to provide more wine for tonight’s party. It seems a mistake has been made.” She glared at one of the knights – the one with the ‘X’ shaped swords – and the waemon seemed to wither. Confused murmurs arose from the guests. “I am sorry for the -”

A loud crash was heard from the head of the table. Queen’s Iappa’s face was contorted in fury, her hand curled into a fist.

“How dare you disrespect us?”

“My Queen,” Summer bowed her head. “I can assure you this has been a complete misunderstanding. I was informed a hundred and thirty gallons of wine had been imported from our neighbours. It was apparently not executed to that capacity.”

“Don’t they have another drink?” Arthur whispered to his father. “Some brusks of rum?”

“That’s not the point.” Teagun said. “It’s a disgrace for the bride and groom to run out of wine at a wedding. Much more before the Queen.”

“What will they do?”

Before Teagun could answer, Queen Iappa stood, her face murderous.

“This is treachery.”

At that, her flanking guards drew their swords. Arthur stared open-mouthed as they marched forward and seized Summer and her husband, pinning their arms to their sides.

“Kill them,” Iappa said. “And bring me more wine! I don’t care where it comes from.”

Arthur turned to his father but one look warned him not to say anything.

“No. Wait. Don’t kill them.” A clear voice rang out.

Arthur gasped. He couldn’t help it. His disbelief was masked by the sound of others’.

“Who dares question our authority?”

“I do.”

Arthur scanned the room for the author of the voice. His eyes finally settled upon the strange boy who hadn’t been watching the dances. No, this surely wasn’t merely strangeness. This was madness!

A young waemon, most probably his mother, put a hand upon his shoulder.

“Please do not be angry your Highness, he is young.”

“Not too young to know when to pay respect,” The Queen spoke through gritted teeth. One of the knights advanced towards the boy, pinning his hands behind his back.

“What is your name, boy? And do you know to whom you are speaking?”

“My name is Word. And you are Her Royal Majesty, ruler of the First World.” The boy was calm yet firm.

“And how old are you, Word?”

“Fifteen.”

“Well watch your tongue as you go, or you won’t live to see your next dae of birth.” The Queen clicked and the guard let go of Word. “Kill the mayoress and her groom.”

Word’s mother looked no more relieved at the release of her son. Instead, she blurted:

“If you are provided with more wine, will you spare Summer and her lord?”

Queen Iappa narrowed her eyes.

“There is no more wine.”

“That may be so,” Word’s mother pressed. “But if you are provided with more wine, will you spare them?”

“Very well.”

“I would only ask that you would give myself and my son leave to obtain your wine.”

“May it be so.”

“Thank you, my Queen.”

“Not so eager…” The Queen trailed off, pausing so that she might know the correct term of address.

“Arama, my Queen.”

“Not so eager, Arama. If I’m provided with more wine within a quarter bowl, then I will spare the newly wedded couple. However, if you fail to deliver this promise…” The Queen glanced around the room, tapping her fingers in the air thoughtfully. Then her face brightened in mirth. “Then I shall claim the life of your son, Word.”

The silence was palpable. Arama hesitated. Arthur’s lungs burned within his chest but he didn’t dare to breath. Even if the waemon could make it to the market place and back within a quarter bowl, there would be nobody to purchase the wine from. All the traders in the village were seated at this very table. “Do we have a deal?”

The boy, Word, looked towards his mother with an unreadable expression on his face.

“Yes.”

“Wonderful.” Queen Iappa clapped her hands. “Bring forth the temerea.”

The close-lipped servants sprung to their feet and ran to the back of the Hall. The temerea was as tall as any of the servants and weighed double. Working together, a team of five servants dragged the device to the Queen.

Arthur had only ever witnessed the device at school before. His mother had always lamented that their compound would benefit from a temerea but they had never been able to afford it. Arthur looked at the bold copper face with its time keeper pointing northwards. Beneath the face was a cone shaped bowl, narrower end pointing towards the ground and held upright by two flanking stone pillars. Directly below the narrow opening was a regular shaped bowl, or what Arthur had come to know as a tiller.

“Twenty minutes begins now.”

The servants poured a large container of water into the opening of the cone-shaped bowl. There was nothing to prevent it from filtering through, and already the guests could see the water droplets descending into the tiller.

“Follow them and make sure they are brought back in when the time is up,” The Queen muttered. Her flanking guards escorted Arama and Word from the Hall.

Arthur was surprised by how quick the remaining guests were to pretend as though the ultimatum had never been made. His parents were making conversation and ripping into chunks of bread. Despite this, the drip drip drip of the temerea as its water leaked into the holding pot counterpointed the ostensible harmony in the room. It gave Arthur a headache. The timekeeper was beginning to waver, its arrow’s point sliding slowly along to one of the indicated marks. Two minutes had already past.

“May I be excused?” Arthur asked his father.

“Yes, but hurry back,” Teagun frowned.

Arthur didn’t respond. He was too busy trying to remain nonchalant as he walked past the guests at the table, too busy forcing himself not to run out of the raucous dinner.

Once the doors had swung shut behind him, he allowed himself the smallest of breaths. He had intended to exit the building entirely and get some fresh air, but voices at the end of the corridor met his ears. He grabbed a flaming torch from a holder screwed into one of the stone walls. He had only been in the Town Hall once for a mandatory meeting, yet he recognised the passage ahead of him well. It led to the washing site. Maybe that’s where Arama and Word had gone; they certainly would not have enough time to go anywhere else. Arthur set off down the corridor. The path sloped downwards and he grew colder the further down he went. It was rumoured that the Queens of old had once used the washing site to keep prisoners, and Arthur found himself shivering as he continued, feeling as though being swallowed by some sort of underground monster.

Nearing the end of the passage, he heard voices ahead of him. Arthur pressed himself up against the cold stone wall and extinguished the torch in his hand.

“If you’re wasting time, the Queen will not best be pleased.” A male’s voice, not unpleasant. Most likely one of the guards. Arthur crept forward, wincing as the loose stones crunched under his sandals. Fortunately, nobody seemed to hear for the conversation continued.

“We are not wasting your time. Please hurry.” Arama’s voice.

Arthur hugged the wall and inched forward. Not much further now. He could see the end of the tunnel.

“Very well.”

“Word?” Amara’a voice again. Expectant.

Arthur reached the end. A long silence passed. What was going on? He strained his ears but could hear nothing. Still hugging the wall, Arthur peered around it.

“Mother, why do you involve me?” Word and his mother stood in the tunnel, flanked by two guards. Neither guard had their sword drawn; instead they seemed more interested in the six identical objects that stood before them. Six stone jars, the kind used to hold water for ceremonial washing. They were knee-height and made of stone. Arthur had seen them in temples before. Each held between eighty to a hundred and twenty litres of water.

Word seemed calm. And yet, it was not calmness. Arthur couldn’t quite lay a finger on the expression he saw on the boys’ face.

“Do whatever he tells you.” Arama said to the guards.

“Fill the jars with water,” said Word. To Arthur’s surprise, the guards obeyed.

Glancing at one another, but remaining silent, the guards filled the jars to the brim with water. “Now draw some out and take it to the Queen at the banquet.”

The guards burst into laughter.

“You want us to take water to the Queen?” One of them said. “Are you out of your mind?”

“He must’ve taken the seed of the spicewater,” The other agreed. “She will kill you for this.”

And there it was again – a look on the boys’ face that Arthur couldn’t quite place.

“Please do it,” Arama urged.

The guards glanced at one another. The first one shrugged his shoulder and knelt. He scooped some water into a chalice and straightened up. “On your head be it. Let’s go.” The guards propelled the mother and son through the tunnel.  With horror, Arthur realised that they intended to come back the way he had come. There was no time to run back; they would make it round the corner before he had even taken ten steps.

There. Arthur wondered he hadn’t seen it on his way here. Part of the tunnel wall had caved in on itself. The crumbling away of the stone had left a hole. It was too small even for a baby chamwolf or scarlet leopard, but there was no other option. Arthur took one last look towards the tunnel exit. The flickering lights were getting closer and the slapping of sandals louder.  He dived into the hole and no sooner had he concealed himself behind the walls, than the guards rounded the corner.

The floor was damp and cold. Something tickled his neck but it was too dark to tell what it was. He shivered, remembering stories of the Queens of old who had tortured their victims with scorpions before beheading the poor souls. Where the scorpions were concerned, two camps of legend had met Arthur’s ears. The first – and most comforting – claimed that each and every one of the vicious creatures had been melted down into a survivor’s chalice. The second said that the scorpions had escaped their owners, left to live and breed among the damp stone of the tunnel walls.

Arthur watched as shadows crept along the floor towards him. From his hiding place he saw the guards’ feet. They were dangerously close. One slight veer to the left and they would be standing on his fingers. Arthur held his breath.

But the entourage passed. He waited until the footsteps resided, until there was no way that they could possibly see him, before scrambling out of his hiding place. He knew he should return before his parents noticed him missing, but he had to see the stone jars for himself. He doubled back on himself, rounding the corner to where the guards had stood. Part of him expected the whole thing to be some form of jape executed purely for his benefit. But peering into the stone jars, he saw it was just as the guards had said; there was nothing in the jars but water. Just to make sure, Arthur tipped the jar into his cupped palm, then drew the liquid to his lips. There was no burning comfort of wine or even the bitter taste of rum. They really were about to present water to the Queen.

Arthur turned and ran in the direction of the banquet.

*

 

Not even his father noticed him re-enter and slip into the seat beside him. Everybody was too busy staring at Queen Iappa. The Queen took a sip from the chalice. Her face turned red.

“What sorcery is this?” she spluttered. “By the five worlds – this is delicious.”

Arama smiled.

“You will spare the lives then, my Queen?”

“Spare the lives?!” Iappa laughed. “I will celebrate the lives!” She raised the chalice in toast.

“There are six more jars of wine in the washing site.” Word said quietly.

The guards were instructed to collect the stone jars. They returned and shared the contents amongst the guests.

“Let us toast to our noble guest Word, and his mother,” Queen Iappa said. “Summer and Jayden – I see this was a jape all along! And how splendid. Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink, but you have saved the best till now.”

Arthur watched as a servant poured a red wine into his chalice. He drank. The Queen was right – this was indeed the best wine he had ever tasted. When he looked up, Word was watching him. The boy smiled at him and raised a hand in greeting. Arthur did the same.

How did you do that? Arthur mouthed, gesturing at his drink.

The boy grinned but said nothing.

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FRAGMENTS FROM THE NOTES OF A CHILD PSYCHOLOGIST

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Sienna yelled her brothers’ name twice during orgasm. The first could perhaps have been forgiven; Benedict was by nature a very forgiving man. The second however, dented his sensibility. The name rolled off her tongue and lodged a dagger in his back, like the red lacquered nails she had slid across his spine as her moans grew more fervent.

Lincoln. Lincoln!

As you will soon discover, it made perfect sense for Sienna to yell her brothers’ name. Benedict knew, as he lay close-lipped beside her, that he was being stubborn but somehow this spurred him on even more.  I posit to you a scenario: you are mid-argument, furious and self-righteous, when suddenly you realise your argument is not as valid as you originally thought.  In fact, there’s a large chance you’re completely in the wrong – but the fear of admitting defeat keeps you arguing. Sound familiar? It was this exact mental process that kept Benedict silent. Besides, he’d reverted back to his childlike self and all he really wanted was a good nap and a sandwich.

Benedict? What are you thinking?

So he told her: stilton and salmon would really hit the spot.

She knew then that he was doing his “Thing – “Thing” by which he ignored his feelings and focused on anything to distract himself. The numerous letters about, by, and to Freud that she had recently become fascinated by, told her that this was a method called Repression. So instead of trying to make him open up, she swung her legs out of the bed and set about pandering to what can only be called the male trifecta: Sandwiches, beer and blowjobs.

Benedict wondered, even as those legs made their way from his side, whether he was taking this too far. He made a mental note to hold that thought and then a physical note in the small book he kept in the pocket of his jeans which were strewn across the floor: Sienna’s reaction is always to please the man, never herself. She resolves conflict calmly – never injecting her own emotions into the situation.

The aroma of melted cheese met his nostrils and in that moment, an important meeting occurred. Common meet Sense. Location? Benedict’s brain. Time? Now. For the love of all things – now!

He bolted from the bed, down the stairs and into the kitchen. Sienna, unaware of his presence, was monitoring the sandwich toaster. She stood there naked, bruised yet beautiful. Benedict wished she could understand just how beautiful. He wrapped his arms around her waist and buried his face into her neck. She flinched, but quickly relaxed in his familiar hold. Her hands, resting upon his arms, pressed lightly into the warmth of his flesh and posed the ever-present question: Forgive me?

“Don’t ask me to forgive you. Never ask me to forgive you. There’s nothing to forgive.”

So they ate stilton and commenced upon the second and third acts of the male trifecta.

Why don’t we give our lovers some privacy?

*

Before we continue, let me take the time to note that I take no pleasure in telling this story. I do not recount this tale with any particular joy. But there is no other option except to slowly go mad.

You see, I am sworn by law never to utter the intricacies of their relationship to a living soul. I did try recounting it to a dead soul instead. I sat beside my mother’s grave but guilt soon overtook me. She was not a woman whose interest would be piqued by incestuous affairs. And immediately it was as if I could hear her voice from beyond the grave, reprimanding my indelicacy.

So instead, I have taken to writing down this topic. There are no rules regarding addressing this to an imaginary soul. In all my years as a lawyer, never have I been entrusted with a story that has so troubled my morality.

*

Libido [Luh-Bee-Doh]

  1. In Freudian psychology, the energy associated with the psychic desires that come from the id.
  2. Sexual instinct or sexual drive.

*

Losing a child is never easy.  As Arthur and Cassie Chambers were about to discover – neither is finding one.

Arthur and Cassie had envisioned a joyous reunion but that couldn’t have been further from the truth. Three years and twenty six days after she’d disappeared, Sienna Chambers stood in her old hallway again but Instead of hugs and kisses, Sienna backed away when her parents approached her. She did not speak to them for a full three weeks. She visited her brother’s room often and in secret, until one day her parents discovered her curled up on his floor, a razor in her hands, weeping. They carried her from his room and prized the offending object from her hands. The next day, Sienna found they had boarded up his door.

That same day, her parents contacted a VIP – Very Important Psychiatrist – by the name of Benedict de Vere PhD, renowned for his success in the psychiatric field. Initially, he refused to see them. Benedict lived far away and besides, Sienna was now eighteen and he specialised in child psychology. But curiosity got the better of him when he realised Sienna was the girl that had made front page news every day for the past week.

At this point, I am obliged to inform you that Benedict was a good man. True, he had done things he was not proud of: he’d peed in the public swimming pool at age ten. Many years later, a whiskey and wine fuelled night had led to him waking up partially naked in the middle of a roundabout. Perhaps the worst one – he had not spoken to his own brother for ten years. However, on the whole he was a man with good intentions and an aura that gravitated people toward him.

There is not time to introduce the trifles; how, at their first meeting, Benedict wore a sweater vest that reminded Sienna of Lincoln, or how Sienna’s perfume brought back memories of Benedict’s own childhood. Alas, nor is there time to delve fully into their first conversation, interesting though it was. Perhaps it will serve all of us better to hear from Benedict himself.

2.3.13

Client behaves younger than her years, which is only to be expected. Maintains eye contact; doesn’t seem threatened by opposite sex. Closed off body language but may just be accustomed to an enclosed environment. (Little to suggest she left the basement on several occasions) Responds well when directly addressed but needs encouragement to talk.

Fluent. Intuitive.

4.3.13

Client’s memories of abductor are rarely negative. Evident pining for brother – has identified him as ‘saviour’ type > Stockholm syndrome

5.3.14

Despite traumatic experiences, v little to suggest PTSD or similar. Flew into rage when brother’s integrity questioned. Interesting to note how…

10.3.14

She wishes to speak on brothers’ behalf during trial. Freudian CM most likely – Denial.

15.3.14

When asked why crying, responded with ‘I miss him’ – rest of session held in silence.

16.3.14

Sienna confesses to terrible nightmares. Suppressed memories. Prescribed Xanax.

Slowly the girl began to trust Benedict. Soon he was no longer just her psychiatrist, but also an older and intellectual friend. At the end of their meetings, she began hugging him goodbye. Once, she went further.

12.4.14

She kissed me goodbye. On the cheek. She kissed me…

It was this blurring of the professional lines that prompted him to ask the question:

“How did it feel?”

This in itself was not too much of a risk in terms of their relationship. If Sienna didn’t want to respond, he knew full well she would just tell him so. The one good thing that came out of her relationship with Lincoln – despite himself, he had to recognise that some good had come out of it – was that Sienna was guileless. She told the truth with the same unabashed sincerity that is usually abandoned by adulthood.

“With Lincoln?”

He nodded.

“Sleeping with Lincoln was…the most amazing time of my life,” she said, a hint of sadness in her voice. “He made me feel safe. He made me feel wanted. When I was with him, I never wanted it to end. Sometimes we wouldn’t even have sex. Sometimes he’d come home and we’d lie together and he’d tell me about his day. Don’t you think that’s sweet?”

“This isn’t about me,” he said evenly. “What about him made you feel so safe?”

“He told me he’d always be there for me and protect me.”

“And those were your favourite times? When you’d just lie and talk?”

“Yes. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the sex was fantastic.” She smiled. “I’m glad you asked me, Benedict. About what it was like. Everybody else just shies away from it.”

“Well I am your psychologist. It’s my job.”

“No…you genuinely wanted to know. I’m glad you had the guts to ask. Why don’t other people ask? Is sex really that taboo a subject?”

Benedict had laughed then.

“In England it is.”

11.5.14

Id – I need her.

Ego – She’s a client.

Superego – Control yourself.

 

Permit me to skip forward to appointment number sixteen; a meeting that was different from all those that had preceded. Sienna seemed happier and Benedict wondered if this was due to her parents’ absence; both had been made to attend an important business meeting.

They sat over cups of tea and after discussing Lincoln for a while, Sienna abruptly changed the subject.

“Why are you still here Benedict? Do you still think I’m crazy?”

“Nobody thinks you’re crazy. You went through a strenuous time and we want to make sure you’re alright.”

“I’m no different than all the other girls who meet a guy and fall in love. I know this is unconventional but why can’t you all just be happy for us?”

“Because he took you from your family and friends. He locked you in a basement and abused you!”

He waited for her to retaliate; scream, claw his eyes out, something. Instead, she shook her head.

“You’re so human Benedict. Have you read Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray?”

“What?”

“Well have you?”

“Yes, but how – ?”

“There’s one passage when Basil discovers the love of Dorian’s life has died, and he runs to comfort Dorian. Do you remember that? Well my favourite part has to be Dorian’s response. He calls Basil awfully unjust. Says something like, ‘Basil, you came down here to console me…You find me consoled, and you are furious! How like a sympathetic person!’ I love it because it’s so true about human nature. You came here expecting me to be messed up because of my brother. But even though I’m fine, you can’t accept it. It irritates me but it’s so bizarrely human that I love it too. What are you thinking?”

“That I’ve never heard somebody be so honest with me, Sienna. And I know that you’re in love with him but you need to understand it from everybody else’s perspective. What about your parents? Suddenly the girl they loved and raised disappears. Finally they discover she’s been tortured and raped by their own son. They were oblivious. How do you think that would make them feel?”

“It wasn’t rape.”

“You were fifteen – that’s under the age of consent. The law says that’s rape.”

“Then the law is stupid.”

“’The law is stupid’ isn’t going to be a helpful defence for Lincoln,” Benedict smiled. “Speaking of which, are you still resolved to speak on his behalf during the trial?”

“Yes.”

“I would advise against it.”

“The entire world advises against it. The newspapers are going to have a field day.”

“Field? They’ll have the whole ballpark. How do your parents feel about it?”

“They’re banking on you to stop me.”

“No pressure,” Benedict murmured, checking his watch.  “Well I believe that’s the end of our session.”

They rose together and Sienna planted a kiss on his cheek.

“Until next time.”

That should have been the end of the sixteenth appointment but as Benedict made his way to the front door, it was pouring heavily.

“You can’t go out in that. Stay until it lets up.”

“I wouldn’t want to intrude.”

“You scour the inner workings of my mind at every appointment and you don’t want to intrude?”

“Touché.”

“Stay; you won’t be a bother. I’m going to make dinner anyway. Would you like some pasta?” Sienna called over her shoulder as she walked to the kitchen.

He followed her.

“I’m alright, thank you.”

“I’ll make you a bowl. You’re clearly hungry.”

He looked surprised. “Please, you’re not the only one who can read minds.”

“I should be able to, shouldn’t I? But you, Sienna, are unreadable.”

Sienna had been getting ingredients out of the cupboards but now she turned to face him, a look of mock indignation on her face.

“Hey, I’m an open book.”

“Well sure you are,” he nodded. “But it’s like the writing’s in Swahili.”

She laughed, moving towards the sink to fill a pot with water.

“You have no idea how weird it is, cooking for somebody other than Lincoln.”

“I’ll help you. Then technically you won’t be cooking for me, just with me. Sound alright?”

He took the pan from her and placed it on the hob. “You cooking for me – would he mind?”

“I think he’d hate it.”

The grin of a rebellious child was on her face. Most teenagers were out partying late, hooking up with guys, or trying drugs for the first time. For Sienna, being a rebel meant making a pesto pasta dish for another man.

The water came to a boil but as Sienna began to tip in the pasta, the bag split and the shells rained down on their feet. She feverishly started to pick them up.

“Sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to – ”

Benedict knelt to help her and Sienna recoiled, raising her hands to shield her upper body. She stayed that way for what felt longer than any lapse of time Benedict had ever experienced.

“Sienna?” he said eventually.

She lowered her hands and resumed collecting the shells.

“I’m fine.”

“Are you sure? You flinched when I got close.”

“What?”  She looked away.

“You flinched.”

It made sense– fear following a history of abuse was only to be expected. Why then, did Benedict feel almost personally affronted?

“Sienna, I would never hurt you.”

He went to place an arm on her shoulder but thought the better of it. Instead, he took the shells from her. He watched as the blood returned to her palms, which had paled where she’d balled her fist so tightly.

He stood up and threw the pasta shells in the bin. Sienna was now shivering, as if cold.

“Do you want me to leave?”

She shook her head and he knelt back down beside her.

Her voice was little more than a whisper:

“He didn’t like mistakes.”

A fizzing sound met their ears as the water boiled over. Benedict jumped up, lowering the heat and removing the pan lid. He knelt again. She still hadn’t moved but she was no longer shivering. In fact, her entire body was catatonically rigid.

Without thinking this time, Benedict reached out. Sienna flinched but didn’t pull away as he held her hands in his, circling her palm with his thumb. It was an instinctive action. Benedict had no idea why he was doing it or even what it was meant to achieve but slowly, Sienna’s jaw unclenched and her eyes fluttered closed.

“I’m so sorry.” she mumbled.

“You don’t have to apologise.”

To his surprise, it was these words that had the most palliative effect of them all. Sienna finally released her breath, her chest inflating out and then caving inwards, in a successive series of painful gasps. Benedict continued to circle his thumb across her palm. Unexpectedly, she buried her head into his shoulder, her breath warm against his neck. He felt her breathing stabilise, felt her heartbeat slow against his.

“I’m s–I mean…thank you,”

One arm held her close. With his spare hand, he stroked her head.

“Mum used to do that,” she said. “I used to lie on her lap and she’d stroke my hair and sing me to sleep.”

It was the first time she’d mentioned a time before her abduction.

“Well I’m not going to sing, I can tell you that now.”

She collapsed into something that was half-laughter, half-sob. “So does it help? Stroking your hair? Does it bring comfort because of your childhood?”

“Are you asking as a friend or as a psychiatrist?”

“Always as a friend,” he murmured into her hair.

“Yes – yes it helps.”

They sat in silence for a while, somewhat entwined on the cold kitchen floor, before Benedict pulled away.

“I don’t know about you but I’m starving.”

Together, they set about making the remainder of the rebellious pesto pasta dish.

And a splendid pesto pasta dish it was. As they watched TV and ate, Benedict found himself sneaking glances at the young woman beside him. She was leaning against him and he stroked her hair, humming softly.

Pesto pasta night was the first time they slept together.

28.5.14

During, it was wonderful.

After, she just kept repeating, ‘He’s going to kill me.’

 

Benedict apologised so many times he lost count. ‘I can’t be your psychologist anymore. I’ll leave,’ he said.  But she wouldn’t let him.

Nobody has to know.’ And she said it so many times he found himself believing her. If it had been anybody else, he would have left. But he’d grown fond of Sienna. More importantly, who would look after her when he was gone? He couldn’t trust just any psychologist.

Benedict had told many lies in his lifetime. The most memorable was minor but somehow managed to get dredged from the recesses of his family’s memory at every drunken Christmas gathering– ‘No mum, I did not eat the chocolate cake.’ (Complete with full-bellied toddler and crumb-covered mouth.) In later years was the frequent, ‘My printer broke, but I promise I’ve done the homework.’ Much later, when older and living alone, most lies were done over the internet: (Of-course-I’ll-read-the-terms-and-conditions. Who doesn’t?) But Benedict had never told so big a lie as he proceeded to tell Sienna that afternoon:

“I’ll stay, but this can’t happen again.”

To be fair to our lovers, they kept their hands off each other for the next few appointments. Trouble occurred on the twenty-third appointment when Sienna confessed something that had troubled her recently.

“I love you,” she told Benedict, staring down at her hands. “I love you and I’ve thought about it and I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to love you. I hate this. I hate myself.”

“I love you too, but you understand why we can’t be together. Don’t you?”

From a logical standpoint, they both understood. But the libidinal standpoint was more convincing.

4.6.14

I’ve fallen for her.

As Lincoln’s trial loomed, Sienna became increasingly anxious.

“You still want him released?” Benedict would ask. Sienna knew what he meant: Despite us? You still want him?

One evening Sienna’s parents returned home to find Lincoln’s bedroom door smashed down. Sienna sat on his bed, staring blankly into space, once again with a razor in her hand. They rang Benedict who jumped on the first train there. When he arrived two hours later, Sienna was sat in the same spot.

He nodded at Arthur and Cassie.

“Thank you for ringing me. I’ll take it from here.”

Once her parents left the room, Benedict sat down beside her.

“What’s going through your mind, Si?”

“Everything at once,” she replied instantly. “It’s like my head is screaming and it won’t stop.”

“What’s it saying?”

“That I’m awful… and that I should be spending every waking minute trying to fight for Lincoln’s freedom.”

“And why should you?”

“I owe my life to him. There were so many times he could’ve hurt me or starved me, but didn’t.”

“Neither of those should have even crossed his mind.”

“It wasn’t all the time though – just as a punishment.”

“And you felt like you deserved the punishments?”

“Yes. Although recently – oh, I don’t know. Please leave me alone.”

“Can you give me the razor?” he asked gently. “As your psychiatrist, I can’t leave you here like this, especially if you have suicidal intent.”

“What about as a friend?” she muttered.

“Even more so as a friend. Please?”

She placed the razor in his hand. Benedict allowed himself to breathe again, exhaling the fear and inhaling courage. “There’s something I need to tell you. Maybe now isn’t the best time, but I’ve got to be honest–“

“–What is it?”

“I love you Sienna, but I’m killing you by being with you.”

“Benedict –”

“– No. Hear me out. We can’t do this anymore. You’re not ready for another relationship. Especially not one under these circumstances. Your guilt about disloyalty to Lincoln is only because I have half your affection, and I can’t continue to rip you apart. It’s against what I believe to be right as a doctor, and it’s certainly against how I believe any human being should be treated, especially you.”

She didn’t argue but an insurmountable sadness passed between them. Benedict wished she would argue. This was far worse.

“My parents – ”

“I’ll tell them that the funds aren’t enough to pay for your appointments or that I’ve been made to take another case. I’ll think of something, don’t worry.”

She nodded.

“What are you thinking?” he asked.

“You broke up with me and you’re no longer my psychiatrist – I think you’ve forgone the right to ask me that question,” Sienna said, not too harshly. “And don’t worry – about how I’ll cope when you’re gone. I don’t have ‘suicidal intent’ okay?”

“Okay,” he sighed. “It’s just…I’ve worked with so many cases like this…the end of their next relationship can quite literally kill them.”

“I’ve never acted the least bit like your other cases. You said it yourself once.”

He smiled.

“Perhaps it’s a good job I’m leaving– I would never have been able to figure you out.”

They rose together and embraced.

“Goodbye Benedict.”

He leaned in and kissed her for the last time. His kiss was deep and sincere, his tongue caressing hers with an uncommon tenderness.

When they pulled apart, he smiled back.

“We’ve done the right thing Sienna. Goodbye.”

He turned for the door and stopped short. Sienna’s parents stared back at him in revulsion and fury.

Oh, you can only imagine what happened next!

No amount of begging on Sienna’s behalf would stop them. Her parents immediately pressed charges. Soon, two of the most interesting the cases the UK had seen in over a decade were held side by side: Lincoln Chambers and Benedict de Vere. It took the city by both incestuous and Hippocratic-Oath-breaking storm.

For a month after the verdicts, the girl whom the newspapers named STOCKHOLM SIENNA spoke to nobody. She ate infrequently and slept even less, choosing instead to sit in her room alone.

I did my best to defend him. Benedict received twenty years of imprisonment and Lincoln, a life sentence. Despite her parents’ pleas, she could not distance herself from either one. Most of the times she visited her brother, he seemed beaten and dejected. Other times, he hurled abuse at her.

If Benedict was dejected, he didn’t let her see it. Sienna never knew whether this was a mask to protect her; whether he still considered it his duty to preserve her mental health above all else.

“Are you visiting him?” Benedict asked once.

“No,” she lied.

“You are. Can you at least be careful?”

Dear reader, I will not patronise you by explaining the nature of pain. If you are anything short of a Pollyanna, you will have realised by now that pain is a part of life. But you will also know that pain diminishes. Life Goes On – I hope you will forgive me for appropriating the maxim – and so one morning Sienna found herself voluntarily going downstairs. There she poured herself some orange juice and gulped it down. When she turned, she saw her parents watching her warily.

“Morning,” she said.

That first word was the foundation on which Arthur and Cassie began to rebuild their relationship with their daughter.  Under careful watch and guidance, Sienna began to reconstruct her life. She saw a tutor to help her catch up on missed education. Old friends which she had been too upset to see began to visit the house again.

I posit to you a scenario:

You hear about it on the radio first.

He has been released after six years for ‘good behaviour.’

Less than twenty-four hours later, he knocks on your door.

Would you allow him to become part of your life again?

Hold that thought.

I am more interested to note that Sienna welcomed him in an instant.

black tree

THE ARTIST

cctv2

I was taught that an artist should always take his audience into consideration. You wouldn’t paint a picture without considering the snot-nosed spectators in the gallery. You wouldn’t write a book and wholly disregard your targetdemographic – unless you were an idiot. You wouldn’t , for example, direct a children’s TV show around the topic of pornography. (Although I’m convinced the outraged reaction of the parents would truly be worth it.) However, I feel this advice to be redundant. For myself anyway. My art form is often hindered – no, ruined – by spectators. My art is infallible, beautiful, when uninterrupted by widening eyes.

I am no narcisstic fool, as I’m sure you are already thinking. My art is perfect because perfection itself is an art. It is not a process but a sacred ritual. Firstly, I locate the ideal space for my choreography– large yet enclosed, uncluttered yet containing enough material for that spark. The first spark is what it’s all about. The dripping of the faucet before the creative juices spring forth. The first word on the paper before the novel takes form. Always, the first spark is adagio. Slow and graceful. Alive with its own small but potent rhythm. Then I add two more into the atmosphere, until they are dancing as a trios. I do not allow them to fill the entire space yet. They are still learning, glowing with an inner beauty and a power that they possess but cannot fully use. Yet. I step closer as the dance grows more frantic, no longer terre, the ballerina and cavalier leaping to new heights, coming together as one, clinging to the objects that surround for inspiration. I inhale and marvel at their virtuosic display. I am merely the choreographer; my job is done. Now it is up to the performers, and they put themselves to work violently and brilliantly, exploding with an unbearable heat. They light the room, thicken the air, force me to stand back as their display fogs my lungs. Finally, when I cannot handle anymore of the inspired skill, I back away from the space – the building or forest clearing – but never stop the dance. Creativity should never be hindered.

The day I was arrested, I’d read Fireman Sam: Penny’s First Aid Drill six and a half times. It would have been seven but as I turned the page I looked up and noticed Jason had drifted to sleep. His chest rose and fell slightly beneath his Fireman Sam pyjamas. His knees were tucked to his chest and his toes twitched with a life of their own, even in his unconscious. His fist was closed tightly around one of his most precious belongings; a silver ring I had bought him. His tangled hair flopped over reddened cheeks – he must’ve been very excited when he dozed off. Would Penny pass the drill or not? A great question, of course. And one I knew the answer to six fold. Carefully, I pulled the blanket over his tiny, almost motionless frame and pressed my lips against his forehead.

The day I was arrested, the audience were late. The dance was slowing down by the time the blaring of the sirens entered the scene.  I was lurking in the bushes so I had restricted view seating. Regardless, I was enjoying the performance until I felt a large hand rest upon my shoulder. A woman’s voice ordered me to place my hands above my head – a strange balletomane! –  and stand up slowly. Once I did, my wrists were quickly shackled together. It saddened me to see that very little time was spent in awe of my sublime creation. As usual, more time was dedicated to tearing it down, preventing the beautifully natural jete that had formed.

Amateurs.

When you watch TV arrests, they always focus on the large things. Like the metallic clink of cuffs, or the hand that forces your head to duck into the car, or rights being read. To me, all that was secondary. I could barely focus on those minor details when there were shocked fans crowding around the vehicle, when I was flanked by bodyguards, when we drove down the red carpet of the motorway with such ease.

Upon arrival at the station, my headshot was taken and I was allocated a number before being shown to the VIP room.

Disappointingly, this room was bare with the exception of a table, two chairs, a one-way window and a camera blinking in the corner. The paparazzi always want a slice. Opposite me sat a male fan who’d introduced himself as Detective Dexter Harper.

“Sign this document,” said Harper, sliding a stack of paper to me, “We will then proceed to record this interview. It is in your best interest to co-operate.”

“Why wouldn’t I co-operate? This is a fantastic opportunity. I’m honoured.”

“Opportunity for what?”

That made me smile. I leant back in my chair, crossing hands that had been gracefully unshackled.

“To answer your question, I must first ask you one – what’s every artist’s dream?”

The fan’s face remained blank as though he was thoroughly uninterested in what I had just said. It infuriated me somewhat but no doubt it was just his nerves. It’s not every day you meet a genius. Fortunately for him, I continued:

“Every artist’s dream is to be discovered,” I said. “We’re an awfully egotistical bunch.”

The silence that followed made the clock seem deafeningly loud. It was then that I realised this interview had interfered with my lunch hour. I also noticed that the clock had an acoustic limp; the tick being infinitely louder than the tock.

“You’re not an artist,” he said dismissively. “You’re a killer.”

Now you must understand – I am not easily offended. However Harper’s comment definitely struck a chord with me. I was giving up precious time to answer the drooling fans’ questions! I’m no killer. I’m an artist. A struggling, misunderstood artist whose achievements will no doubt be fully appreciated five hundred years into the future. How delicious!

Despite his ignorance, I took the document and signed my autograph. We cannot expect the scientific, moralistic experts to understand the Muse, now can we? Harper set up a voice recorder – never once taking his eyes off me I noticed, awe or reverie? – read some more rights, and then scrutinised my signature. No doubt he was going to frame it when he got home.

Then he slid a picture across to me. Disappointingly, it was not of my creation. The picture showed the charred body of a child laying amongst rubble. It was, quite frankly, uninteresting from an artistic standpoint. The photo was functional. Ugly.

“What’s this?”

“One of your victims. He was just a child. You’re smiling?!”

“My my,” I stroked my chin as I gazed upon the picture gleefully; “I already had enough performers upon the stage. I wasn’t expecting an extra to turn up in the credits!  Please, don’t insult me. I didn’t choreograph this at all. “

“You’re the one responsible for this child’s death. For that, I will personally make sure you never see the light of day again.”

He really was the most bemusing fan I had ever met! Then again, I hadn’t had the chance to meet many. I’d always remained incognito. Where they all this hostile?

“There have been numerous fires in the area,” he continued, “Numerous deaths. All started the same way. Same MO. Each one of them was you, wasn’t it? Ohio in October. Tennessee the month before? Near the coast in Maine soon after…”

“My aim is merely to create – the people had nothing to do with me. But yes, all of those were my works.”

“That’s all the confession I need.” He turned the recorder off. “I suggest you find yourself a lawyer because believe me, you’re going to need one.”

“I’ll see you at my next signing,” I said.

“Rot in hell,” was the immediate response. I couldn’t help but smile.

“The fiery flames of hell? That’s the greatest dance of them all!”

“You’re out of your mind.” He began to stand but hesitated a moment before sitting back down. “Just tell me this – how could you not care about the aftermath? All those people…”

“The ‘aftermath’ is none of my concern.” I told him. “If an artist were to consider the criticism before he started, he would never finish his piece.”

“Oh you finished alright,” he said grimly. “All the brigade managed to salvage from the last fire was some furniture and this ring.”  He slid a plastic bag across the table. “We would never have caught you if you hadn’t been on the scene. What made you stay this time?”

But I was too busy staring at the lump of silver encased in the plastic bag. I was too busy taking in the unmistakable serpent insignia on the face of the ring. I was too busy trying to organise the million thoughts flying around my head.

“Where did you get that ring?”

“I told you sir, it was found on the scene.”

“No. No it can’t have been.”

“Do you recognise it sir?”

“It’s…no. I told him. I told him! I told him. Jason. Never to follow Daddy to work. This can’t be right. Let me see the score.”

“The score?”

“The musical score. The notations you made. The report, damnit!”

I scanned the document frantically. Body of a child. Male. Approximately eight years of age. Of course, I should have seen it. Jason’s pyromaniac tendencies were never hidden.  There was the unexplained smell of smoke on his person every now and again. The matches under his mattress. His insistence that I read him Fireman Sam stories every night. He must’ve woken up and followed me, attracted to the idea of fire. He wanted to dance. He’d always wanted to dance.

In the distance, as though he was speaking through water, I heard Harper inform me that I would be tried for murder on 8 different counts.

*

Lights up. The soloist walks onto the stage to the Sound of Silence. He steps swiftly, deftly, up to the chair and sits.

Ladies and gentlemen, the denouement.

Lights down.

The other dancers walk onstage, in matching costumes. They raise their arms in canon.

The first performer moves slowly.

Then, with the staccato eruption, his body jerks.

Diminuendo. His body sways. One final perfect cadence. The head bows.

The applause of a nation.

Curtain call.

SWIRL3

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